|Anyone who’s seen the kids’ movie, ‘Paulie’, may look with envy and fascination upon the prospect of owning their very own parrot. While many parrots outlive their parents, so to speak, it’s definitely worth the effort to take the time to train your parrot from young, for your own sake, as well as for the person to whom you bequeath your parrot one day … no-one likes a biting, squawking, feathered mean machine!
This is the first article in a series on training your parrot. We begin by highlighting important pointers that every parrot owner should be aware of. Training should start in the baby phase already. We all realise the importance of teaching and guiding a puppy to be a confident, well-adjusted, obedient adult dog. It is even more important to teach our new baby parrot all the basic life skills it needs to be a confident, well-mannered and happy adult parrot. The last thing we want is for the cute little baby parrot to turn into a biting, screaming, food tossing, feather plucking, human stalker one day.
Remember that parrots have the potential to outlive us and may have to be re-homed one day. Other people may also have to look after your parrot when you go on holiday. It is therefore important to have a well-socialised bird. Parrots go through different phases during their lifetimes and basic training is the only way to have control over them and guide them through these phases. Your parrot needs to know where its place in the household is. Do not try to teachyour new baby parrot too much, too fast during the first week or so while he is still adjusting to his new home.
Keep handling to the minimum until he settles down completely in his new surroundings. (You will not be able to teach him anything while he is constantly screaming for attention or food anyway). It is very, very important to ignore any calling and screaming in the beginning. Resist the urge to go to him when he demands attention.
Only go to the baby’s cage when he is quiet and calm. Turn around and walk away if he starts screaming when you go to his cage. Wait it out, even if he seems to take forever to quiet down. He will soon learn that only calm, quiet behaviour gets rewarded. Do not feel sorry for him, go to him, talk to him or pick him up while he is running up and down in his cage to get your attention, even though he is young and cute. It may sound strict and heartless, but it is good advice.
Show him that all his needs are met. Give him enough food, water, a safe cage and lots of love. Show him that it is not necessary to demand anything. (Remember – demanding may sound like cute little baby noises in the beginning, but may turn into loud, persistent screaming when the bird is an adult). It is not the amount of time spent with the bird that is important, but the quality of time. The bird shouldn’t just be kissed and cuddled every time you interact with him. Use the time wisely to guide and teach your baby bird the very important life skills rather. He must be provided with opportunities to learn and make decisions. Take the parrot to a neutral room for training sessions away from distractions. Parrots have a great need to learn and if their intellectual needs aren’t stimulated, they will be handicapped adult birds.
An untrained parrot is facing a very restricted life alone in his cage. “Practice makes perfect”. We teach birds with the principles of patterning. (Each time they go through the motions of a task, that activity becomes both easier and faster to do next time, until, after a while, it becomes difficult to do something different). The more parrots do certain things, the more likely they are to do it again. We must try every day to pattern the positive actions of a bird and not the negative ones.
The following guidelines are very important to know and keep in mind when training your bird:
(Sally Blanchard’s nurturing guidance fundamentals)
Remember, you are rearing an adult bird, not a baby bird. Be a loving but firm, consistent parent/leader. It is very important that your parrot knows the following basic rules to live in harmony with his human family.
What parrots should know:
THE “TEN COMMANDMENTS” FOR BABY PARROTS:
1. “STEP UP”
The first and most important command to master is the “step up” command. We use this command for the same reasons that we use the “sit”command in a dog. This is an essential tool in developing a relationship with your parrot and also the only way to handle and control him.
2. SIT STILL ON YOUR PERCH OR CAGE
The next important thing for the parrot to learn is to sit still on his cage or perch. Put him on his stand and tell him to sit still. Move away a little and reward the bird if he sits still. If the parrot jumps off, pick him up, tell him to be a good bird and to sit still and then put him back on his stand. He mustconsistently end up in exactly the same spot where he is coming from. There shouldn’t be a reward for jumping off. If he keeps on jumping off, warn him that you are going to put him in “jail”. Put him back in his cage and walk away when he does it again. Try again later. Reward him if he stays on the perch. Move away further and further and reward him every time he sits still. Be consistent, even if it is adorable and flattering that he follows you around. You must be able to know that you can leave him on his perch at all times and trust him to stay there and not get into trouble when your back is turned.
3. PLAY INDEPENDENTLY FROM MOMMY
Teach the parrot “Side to side” interaction rather than constant physical interaction. (It is the same as teaching a child not to cling to you all day long, but to rather sit next to you and play with his toys). It is important to teach the baby bird how to play with its toys and not to be scared of them. Show great interest in the toys yourself and praise him every time he plays with it. Alternate the toys regularly and keep it interesting. He may become interested in a new toy on a different occasion. It is very important to give the parrot a “job” every day. Parrots need to chew “something” and if there isn’t “something” he will spent that extra time on his feathers with devastating results.Remember to teach him that you are not his toy. You will not be able to play with him 24 hours a day. Show him how to keep himself busy and to be independent from you. He needs destructible and indestructible toys. Pine cones, fruit and willow tree branches, paper, leather, cardboard, palm leaves,paper towel rolls,computer paper, mirrors, egg cartons, pine blocks, clothes pins, toys made for babies and children, and fabrics make nice cheap toys.
4. THE SHOULDER IS OFF LIMITS UNLESS YOU BEHAVE
Never allow your parrot to climb on your shoulder whenever he wants to.
Parrots do not automatically know what we expect from them and how to behave in the human flock. Parrots are naturally curious and strong willed. We can’t put them on our shoulders and expect them to just sit there and behave like little angels. Most parrots will automatically and immediately nibble on your ears, jewelry, glasses or moles. Every time you say “no” a hundred times over or laugh or scream or chase him around he gets a drama reward and will turn misbehaviour into a game. You will just pattern him to become aggressive and disobedient on your shoulder. Take him off gently and quietly the minute he misbehaves. Rather hold him at chest level or on your knee where you can make proper eye contact with him. Aggression will definitely develop if a bird is allowed to see you as his perch that needs to be defended. Again, he may seem well behaved on your shoulder now, but may cause severe injury to your face when he suddenly becomes aggressive as a mature, hormonal adult parrot.
5. COMMUNICATE WITH THE HUMAN FAMILY IN THEIR LANGUAGE
Continual, meaningless repetition of words is not effective in teaching a parrot to speak. Parrots will learn words that is said with excitement and used in context much quicker. Say the words clearly, with enthusiasm and use it in association with people, situations and objects. Use the same words consistently for the same things. Name everything you give to the parrot and repeat the same words every time you do anything. If you want the bird to say a certain phrase, provide an excited response when he says it and repeat the phrase in context regularly.
Babies start to mumble from a few weeks of age. They learn simple words that are repeated with enthusiasm first. They start talking well from a few months of age, but may also be talking well after a year only. Babies start practicing words in private first. (Simply incoherent mumbling). Pay attention to mumbling and repeat the words clearly when heard. Also reward every human sound with enthusiasm. Be patient- it takes time. A non-talking bird is not necessarily unhappy. It may just need more stimulation. Parrots may learn new words, no matter how large their vocabulary or what age. Parrots learn to talk to be part of social group, get attention, entertain themselves, and express their need for interaction and stimulation. Always watch your language and body”language”. Words with hard consonants (like swear words) are easier to learn, and very difficult to unlearn. Teach the parrot to talk first and then start to whistle. Don’t whistle too much. Birds will rather whistle than talk. The hard pitch whistling may be fun to make for the parrot but can become very annoying to humans. Answer all questions addressed to the parrot with an exciting answer. This way he will remember the answer and give it in context. Tapes and cd’s that play the whole day long is not very effective. It may help to use the“model/rival” technique. The favourite person holds up an object and labels it. He then shows another person who gives the wrong answer with no response from the favourite person. The rival person (parrot’s less favorite person) then labels it right and gets a very excited reward. Then the attention is transferred to the bird. If he identifies it correctly, he is given the object and praised.
6. DO NOT SCREAM FOR ATTENTION
7. DO NOT PLUCK YOUR FEATHERS
8. ALLOW BODY, WING, TOE MANIPULATION AND BATHING
9. CO-OPERATE WITH EVERYBODY IN THE FAMILY
10. DO NOT BITE HUMANS
A lack of guidance is the number one reason parrots start to bite humans. It is important to set the rules in the house from the beginning. Do not allow the parrot to be in charge of his own life. He will make a bad job of it. Parrots need to be taught how to be good human companions. Parrots do not normally bite in nature. They posture and beak wrestle but would rather fly away the minute they perceive danger or aggression. In our homes they are caged and the wings are clipped, and they can’t react instinctively. The parrot may react instead with biting. Humans give parrots mixed messages all the time and unintentionally reward biting behaviour. We tend to pattern our birds to bite us.Your bird must be trained and given clear messages when you interact with him. When you ask him to step on your hand, make your intentions clear and give a calm, confident instruction. When the parrot bites you, respond without aggression or excitement. Do not let anybody else step in to “rescue” you or the bird. Say a quick “ow!” and “no!” and give him a quick “evil eye” Place the parrot down immediately. (Do not throw him on the ground). Do not scream and make a melodramatic scene. Stay calm. Put him back in his cage to calm down. Walk away and calm down as well. When you return to interact, practice a couple of step-ups again to establish authority. Do not take it personally. There is normally a “parrot reason” the parrot bit you. It is important to stand back, think and find the reason (not just an excuse) the parrot bit you and avoid the situations that lead to biting. Ask yourself the following: did you move too quickly? Was your own energy too high or were you angry or stressed? Were you focused on him and did you make your intentions clear? Did you give him a clear command? Did you read his body language before you picked him up? Did you interrupt him while he was eating or fighting with a toy? Did something or somebody startle him? Make sure it was really a bite and not just the parrot investigating with his beak. Remember- this was a biting incident and will only become a pattern if you act dramatically, punishes the parrot, reward him positively or negatively and let the same scenario play itself off every day! Parrots may become hormonal and territorial. The bird may be handled less and less when it bites until all hand tameness is lost.
Dr Anel Coetzee